How Our Brain Tricks Us, Why We Can’t Trust Our Memory & Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories

Do you believe that you can trust your own mind? That your memories are correct? That you notice what is happening around you? Most people would answer this with a ‘yes’. Now tell me, have you ever noticed your memory of a situation was totally different than that of someone else? Have you ever considered a conspiracy theory to be true? 

The thing is: no, we cannot fully trust our own mind. Our brain is the most complex ‘system’ on earth. There is not one researcher that fully understands the working of the brain. But what we do know is that our brain functions in ways we are not aware of. Here are 4 ways in which our brain plays trick on us, and we don’t even know it.

Our Brain Is A Filter

If our brain would let us experience all sensory stimuli around us, we would go NUTS. In order to function, we need a filter and we need focus. Did you ever find yourself turning down the volume of the radio because you had to think deeply? We can’t simply handle all impulses at once, but we can focus and ignore what’s not important. That is also why we hear it when someone in a talking crowd says our name. This cocktail party effect is our brain picking up on information that’s important to us.
A classic example regarding selective attention is ‘the invisible gorilla’ experiment. In a video, two groups of 3 people passed around a basketball. The viewer had to count how many times the team dressed in white passed the ball. Afterwards, the test leader would ask you if you noticed anything strange. Most people did not notice that a person dressed in a gorilla suit, slowly and very obviously, walked through the group and even looked at the camera. Ha!

We Can Not Trust Our Own Memory

First of all, our memories are subjective. They are a subjective representation of how we perceived a situation. Therefore, what is considered a FACT to you, might not be remembered the same by someone else. Second of all, our memories are subject to change. Every time we recall a memory it’s effected by our current mood and beliefs. Memories can even be influenced by other people. The most extreme example of that is that memories can be manipulated with purpose.
Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studied this topic. She showed that in a legal case a simple manipulation can influence our memories. In one study she found that the memories of participants were greatly influences by how she phrased the question. Participants were shown video’s of different car accidents. She then asked one group how fast the cars were going when they ‘smashed’ into each other. For the other group she used the word ‘hit’ instead of ‘smashed’. She found that the participants reported that the cars were going on average 7 mph faster when she used the word ‘smashed’. One week later, this group even remembered seeing broken glass, while this was not shown in the video.

Learn more about this topic: 5 Memory Facts That Can Help You In Your Daily Life.

We Trust Personal Experiences More Than Statistics

It turns out that we trust the experience of other people MORE than independent research. This is because statistics do not evoke emotions, while personal stories do. We do not even have to know the people personally in order to be influenced by them. This all stems from historic times, when all we had was the people around us telling us about their experiences. Our brain has not fully evolved yet to let statistics block out our emotional response to personal anecdotes.

We See Patterns, Even When They Are Not Present

Did you ever see a dog in the clouds? This is our brain recognizing a pattern. We’re great at seeing patters, even when they are not there. Pattern recognition was a great skill to have in prehistoric times. It was a matter of survival if you could quickly interpret rustling leaves as a possible snake. Therefore, our brains have evolved to become very good at spotting patterns.
We love to interpret patterns as an explanation, as something of meaning and even as a ‘sign’. We are always in search of explanations. The more stress and uncertainty we experience, the bigger our need for a comforting explanation. This was studied by anthropologist Pascal Boyer who concluded that all nations had some sort of belief in an invisible power like angels, nature gods, aliens or complots.
Today, we see this skill reflected in our interest in conspiracy theories. We refuse to accept that horrific, random or unexplainable events happen. In order to accept this, we search for all different sorts of reasons why.

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